'Swordfish,' Travolta flounder

by Sabrina Peric | 6/21/01 5:00am

Fast cars. Terrorists. Explosives strapped onto hostages. Lots of money. Naked women and even a flying bus.

No, this is not "Speed," starring heart-throb Keanu Reeves. This is "Swordfish," another big summer Hollywood blockbuster that goes bang a lot and is particularly focused on vivid images of shattering glass and destroying cars.

While Dominic Sena's film opens promisingly enough with Gabriel Shear, played by John Travolta, pontificating about "Dog Day Afternoon," his ironic introspection about the nature of movies quickly takes a backseat to the car chases and topless women that dominate the rest of the movie.

Shear is a rogue government agent who masterminds the cyber-theft of billions of dollars in order to help him "preserve the American way of life" no matter what the cost.

His uber-altruistic and fatalistic philosophical agenda sets an interesting tone at the beginning of the movie but fails overall to come together in the areas of character development and narration.

To achieve his dream, Shear needs the help of burned-out hacker Stan Jobson, played by Hugh Jackman. Jobson is Shear's way to unbelievable amounts of money.

And though Shear performs many evil deeds himself, we still can't help but appreciate his determined and unflinching character.

But being a semi-moralizing American pre-packaged movie, Jobson is performing all of these illegal hacking tasks for a supposedly greater, family-oriented good: to obtain custody of his estranged daughter.

His daughter is unjustly kept from him by the daughter's mother. But mom is not one of those merely unfit mothers. She's an alcoholic, foul-mouthed, pill-popping and coke-snorting pornography actress.

"You know what the problem with Hollywood is -- they make shit," Shear says at the opening. How true.

He continues by saying that he, unlike many contemporary filmmakers, is "not looking for existential insight through bong smoke." And it appears that director Sena has no concern for insight either.

Swordfish comes across as being more concerned about making noise and showing flesh than making sense.

The movie's lowest point comes during an erratic and fast paced car chase scene through the streets of Los Angeles.

During the chase, Travolta stands up in the car and begins machine-gunning down a caravan of (what else?) massive, mean-looking black sport utility vehicles.

The chase scene ends, predictably enough, with a street scene in which cars crashing through windows and Travolta walking away with many fires burning in the background.

Travolta does nothing to further his own acting development in this particular movie. In fact, with his long hair and slow hushed voice, he often makes the viewer harken back to his role in "Pulp Fiction" as Vincent, the paid assassin.

Halle Berry, on the other hand, can't harken back to anything because she has yet to succeed in the eyes of critics..

Her role, as an undercover drug agent named Ginger, is written expressly for providing the viewer with a token scantily clad babe. And that she does.

Berry's appearance in "Swordfish" includes a gratuitously topless scene guaranteed not to take the plot anywhere.

Jackman's acting, similarly, is remarkable only for its lack of involvement.

In other words, "Swordfish" is a perfect hyped-up summer action movie. No thinking need be involved.

The audience is in the theater looking simply for respite from their dreary lives and for a few short hours of air conditioned heaven.

This is a violent, amoral and highly pyrotechnic summer flick. To use one of Gabriel Shear's favourite phrases, "Swordfish" is an absolute marvel of "misdirection."